- While microplastics research previously focused on the impact on rivers and oceans, a new study highlights the growing threat of airborne microplastics.
- Plastic is not new, but the result of decades of accumulation in the environment.
Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the “the most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century,“but so far research on microplastics has mainly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until they become microscopic and swept up into the atmosphere, where they straddle the jet stream and travel across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers found that this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
“We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels through the atmosphere and it settles all over the world, ”Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and assistant professor of natural resources at Utah State University, told the Cornell Chronicle. “This plastic is not new as of this year. It comes from what we have already released into the environment for several decades.”
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 suspended microplastics samples at 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the airborne microplastics came from Plastic waste in towns and villages. “It just didn’t work that way,” Cornell University professor Natalie Mahowald, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84% of airborne microplastics came from roads, 11% from oceans and 5% from agricultural soil dust, scientists wrote.
“We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be,” Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. “It is amazing that so much plastic is in the atmosphere at this level, and unfortunately accumulates in oceans and on land and only recirculates and moves everywhere, including remote places.”
Scientists say that the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising “questions about the impact of the accumulation of plastics in the atmosphere on human health. Inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious illness,” reported The Guardian.
The study coincides with other recent reports from researchers, which confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are found in remote areas of snow-capped Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown off fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
Over 90% of plastic is never recycled and 8 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans each year. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between companies, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful action to tackle plastic pollution .
In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with tech giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measure the amounts and types of plastic they collect. This data is then analyzed alongside the prices paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.
It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can rethink the global “take-do-dispose” economy into a circular economy in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.
Learn more in our impact story.
As the production of plastic increases each year, the scientists stressed that there remained “great uncertainties in the transport, deposition and attribution of the source of microplastics”, and wrote that further research should be given priority. .
“What we’re seeing right now is the buildup of mismanaged plastics that’s only going to increase. Some people think it’s going to increase tenfold. [per decade]”Mahowald told The Guardian.” But maybe we can fix this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they build up in the environment and swirl around. “